Island-hopping: life in the slow and fast boat

Most travelers consider sea travel as a last resort due to time and convenience factors,  but if you opt for it (and have too much free time like me), you’ll see a unique side of island hopping that planes miss. And depending where, you could go it by slow boat or speed boat. Two recent boat trips illustrated how Asia’s archipelago neighbors — the Philippines and Indonesia — are different, for better and for worse.

Before I few from Manila to Bali via a transfer in Singapore, I spent 15 hours on a slow 2GO car ferry, packed with mostly Filipino passengers. Two days later, I was on my next boat — a 30-min speedy, yet bumpy affair that landed me on Nusa Lembongan, one of 14,000-plus islands in Indonesia. The contrasting trips were enlightening.


Due to the Philippines’ limited infrastructure (and my lack of planning), my time there can be summed up by slow, tedious travel interspersed with moments of excitement and adventure. To my surprise, the 2GO ferry had a karaoke stage complete with a bar so entertainment to pass the time wasn’t a problem. I drank and shared travel stories with some fellow backpackers, ended up being the first passenger to sing (I can’t resist Bon Jovi), and was invited to join a Filipino group before I fell asleep on a bunk bed (not my assigned bed, but it was the first available one I saw). A jeepney and a taxi ride later put me at the airport to wait for Indonesia.

On the other hand, Bali — what most tropical tourist islands strive to copy because of its immense popularity — doesn’t lack tourist services (or touts). As soon as I got off the plane at Bali’s recently expanded Denpasar Airport, I was hounded by taxi drivers trying to charge me double. You can avoid this by turning right when you exit the terminal, and going to the taxi ticket office that has set prices. Soon I was whisked away by taxi (100,000 Indonesian Rupiah) to Sanur, the oldest tourist resort area in Bali. I chose Sanur because it’s a short boat ride away from Nusa Lembongan, which boasts good waves for surfers as well as crystal clear water for divers. (It was recommended to me by a Canadian couple in Puerto Galera.)


The driver dropped me off at Café Locca, which offers comfortable dorm beds for 90K, a short walk from the beach. Sanur is highly developed, and mostly caters to the older, middle-aged crowd, with pricey resorts, yet you can find warungs (local restaurants) that offer cheap, delicious meals everywhere. Try the Gado Gado (mixed vegetables and tofu with peanut sauce) and Mie Goreng (spicy noodles with vegetables). Although be careful with the Indonesian hot pepper sauce — it packs a punch! Despite the high number of souvenir shops, tour agencies, and money changers ($1=13,500IR), there weren’t many tourists to spoil the beachfront so I had a quiet, relaxing experience. I wrapped up the evening at Linga-Longa Bar, where I listened to an amusing local cover band, playing rock music requests from the Bintang (Indonesia’s beer of choice) drinkers.

The next morning I watched as a local woman placed an offering of food and incense on the street in front of the warung I was drinking Bali coffee at. Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, but Bali is mostly Hindu so the daily religious offerings are a common sight. The traditional practice lends to the exotic allure that gives Bali its nickname: Island of the Gods. I didn’t find the same magic in the Philippines. Perhaps its due to my Western bias, but Filipino churches, found throughout the Roman Catholic country, didn’t have the same power over me.

The Philippines has its fair share of incredible sights, but it’s tough to beat the majestic view of Mount Agung, an active volcano, as I was speeding from Sanur to Lembongan. Which archipelago is better? Too soon to say. Which mode of transport is better? Both slow and fast travel have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, you could get the same incredible view from the public slow boat for a fraction of the price.

Revisiting the Pacific War at Coron

My torch’s narrow beam found the edges of the rusted doorway. In I gingerly went, joining my group in a small, jail-like compartment. Ding! My air tank bumped against the low ceiling. We exited through a window and glided over the Olympia Maru, a 128m-long WWII Japanese supply ship that was sunk by American bombing in a 1944 raid. It now rests 30 meters underwater, along with nine other vessels that followed the same fate, off the coast of Busuanga Island on the northern tip of Palawan.

Due to being submerged for 70-plus years, a motley crew of colorful, hard and soft coral, and marine life call the wrecks home. I spotted a majestic lion fish coasting on the deck, a scorpion fish hiding by the buoy line, and schools of smaller fish darting by, just to name a few. Not a bad way to spend a birthday. All told, I explored five underwater wrecks over two days with Sanho, a Korean-owned dive shop in the town of Coron on Busuanga Island.

East Tangat Gunboat with a barracuda I missed


The one-hour boat ride back to Coron, where most divers stay, gave me a chance to bask in the exhilarating dives, and relate what I saw with husband & wife instructors, Jay and Tabby. The Korean couple shared their knowledge about the dive sites in decent English (communicating in English is generally not a problem in the Philippines), and offered a tasty Korean lunch during a full day on their dive boat (three dives for P2,800, two dives for P2,500). I timed my dives perfectly as the rainy season is beginning.

Sea Dive Resort, owned by an American, was recommended to me by a divemaster in Puerto Galera. I decided not to dive with the most experienced outfit because I was told I couldn’t dive the deeper wrecks (I’m an experienced OW diver, but I lack the advanced certification). So I went with Sanho — it was recommended by a French couple I befriended on the 7-hour boat from San Jose to Coron — and stayed at one of Sea Dive’s P450 fan rooms. It’s very basic with traditional bamboo latticework, but has no sea view.


A nice sunset view of Coron Bay and the surrounding karst islands can be had for free on the rooftop. The small town is geared towards tourists so a handful of bars (No Name Bar is popular with divers, as is Sea Dive’s Helldivers) and western-style restaurants are located on the main drag. For superb, reasonably-priced Filipino and Western fare, head to La Sirenetta, at the end of the pier beside Sea Dive, and owned by a Hawaiian/Englishman named Mico. I had my best chicken adobo to date there. He also owns Puerto Del Sol Resort, 36km west of town, which is a quiet and serene alternative (and much closer to the wrecks) as Coron can be a little noisy and busy at times.

After diving, I explored Busuanga for two days with a rented motorbike from Angel Motorcycle (P300 for five hours). I enjoyed a late lunch and sunset at Puerto Del Sol, followed by Bali Beach and a small village called Bayo Bayo that overlooks Siete Pescados, the next day. Pass on Bali (it’s the closest beach, but it’s small and littered with trash and debris), and join an island-hopping tour (P750-P1,500 per person) that takes you to Coron Island, Layangan Lake, and Siete Pescados. Better yet, try to rent a boat yourself and go snorkeling at Siete Pescados, a cluster of islets surrounded by shallow coral. I tried, but was told it was recently forbidden to swim in the surrounding waters because an unfortunate tourist last year tried to stand on the coral, coming in contact with a lethal stone fish, and later died. (ADVICE: never touch coral.)


Most travelers come to this isolated part of the Philippines to wreck dive. You could fly to Busuanga Airport or do it the hard way, like me, and take a long boat from San Jose (P800, seven hours). You could also take a six-hour boat from El Nido. I happened to arrive during a full moon so, naturally, I went to a Full Moon party at Bali Beach. I accompanied an entertaining group of Filipinos and Americans I met beforehand at Sea Dive. The DJ played mostly Western music, which is what usually blares from Videoke joints (the Filipino version of Karaoke) and passing tricycles. Of course, I haven’t visited all 7,000-plus islands, but of the five I have, American Pop and Hip-Hop reign supreme. (American-style junk food is also ubiquitous at convenience shacks that you can find anywhere there’s a road.)

Next up: a 15-hour, overnight 2GO ferry (P2,200) from Coron to Manila to catch my flight to Bali. More scuba diving awaits.

Slowly getting away from Boracay

Distancing myself from Boracay took longer than I thought. The Philippines’ version of Thailand’s Phuket or Spain’s Ibiza (albeit on a much smaller scale), the party island has a way of sucking you in like a black hole. I planned for a two-day visit, yet six nights vanished there in no time.

Knowing the tiny island’s outsized drinking reputation resides on White Beach, along with the majority of foreign tourists, I tried to keep my distance. I stayed at the Lazy Dog (P540 dorm), a stone’s throw from Bolabog Beach, and a 10-minute stroll from the bar/disco scene that is packed around Station 2 of White Beach. What did I accomplish? Sadly, not much. By day, I would watch the wind & kite surfers at Bolabog, and be a beach bum by snorkeling and/or swimming at other beaches. Puka, an undeveloped shell beach on the western tip, is great for a quiet sunset.

If you want to people watch and don’t mind crowds, by all means head to White Beach, which draws hordes of sunbathers to its long stretch of white, powder sand. Starbucks and an unbroken row of resorts, restaurants, and souvenir shops are all close at hand. I generally stay away from resorts due to their exclusive nature, but Spider House was exceptional! The eclectic resort, originally the owners’ house, was built on a rock face, and partially on rocks in the sea. You can jump from their restaurant deck into calm, crystal-clear water, 3m below! Follow that act with a beer and pizza, and enjoy a sunset, far enough from the tourist masses.


Once the sun went down, I was inevitably pulled to the nightlife on White Beach. Exit, a chill bamboo beach bar that has a rotating cast of Reggae, House, and Hip-Hop Djs, is a good spot to start the night. Part of the draw was no shortage of good drinking buddies — I met two Germans and a Russian at my dorm, a fun-loving group from England at Puka Beach, and I reconnected with my two Swiss friends on my last evening.

We parted on Mindoro Island after a long journey from Sabang Beach to Roxas (P20 jeepney to Puerto Galera bus terminal, P80 jeepney to Calapan, P180 van to Roxas). I waited eight hours at Roxas Pier for the 10pm Montenegro car ferry (P480) that took five hours. Finally, I caught the first Boracay boat (P25 boat ticket, P75 environment fee, P100 terminal fee) at 5am. All in all, it took over 20 hours to get from Sabang to Boracay!


That’s another reason why I stayed for six nights — the thought of another long island hop wasn’t appealing. The scenery and people you see during slow, tedious land and sea travel can be rewarding, but it’s taxing as well. If you don’t have the time and a deep reserve of patience, you should definitely fly.

I timed my personal exodus so I could catch the Saturday boat to Coron, two days later. The route required me to backtrack to Roxas by ferry, where I would take a van to San Jose followed by a Coron-bound banca (Tues, Weds, Thurs, Sat, Sun at 9am — P800, seven hours). It’s not a convenient destination, but it’s worth it if you want some of the best wreck diving to be found. To my knowledge, you can’t drink and party underwater.

Adrift with sweetlips in Puerto Galera

Now this is traffic you can appreciate. I’m not referring to the notorious Filipino gridlock, but rather the spectacular marine version. To watch a morning rush hour flow seamlessly together, I clung to hard coral 30m deep in the Canyons — one of the world’s premier drift dive sites. Watching schools of sweetlips and batfish swim against the strong current and a backdrop of colorful coral reef was simply mesmerizing. After a few blissful minutes, the divemaster gave the signal to slowly ascend, and my most exhilarating dive came to a close.

On the short boat ride back, I related to the much more experienced divers how my dive almost failed. I was separated from my group on the initial descent due to the strong current, but was fortunately found. I also cut my hand on sharp coral (blood looks green at 30m under!). It was only minor so it didn’t stop me from doing a wreck dive later; blood-sensing sharks aren’t a concern here. Just another day at Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera — a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — on the island of Mindoro, about 130km south of Manila.


I came to the Philippines to scuba dive, and Puerto Galera has some of the most diverse coral reef diving in Asia. You can’t go wrong by snorkeling, either. The sheer number of fish and plant life will make your head spin. To get here from Batangas, take a Starlite car ferry (P180) to Baletero or Puerto Galera, and then a tricycle taxi or Jeepney to Sabang. Most foreigners come to this developed beach for the diving (I counted close to 20 dive shops) and/or girlie bars, not the beach, which is sub-par by Filipino standards.  For better scenery and sand, head to White Beach or numerous pocket beaches a short hop away by tricycle (or you could rent a scooter for P300 for the day).


When I arrived at Sabang with Fabian and Luca, the two Swiss guys I befriended at Taal Volcano, we ignored the tourist touts and walked away from the pricey main drag to find budget accommodation. Sergio, a local who runs Beatrice Lodge, spotted our bags and showed us the way to his family-owned hotel, restaurant, and dive shop at the eastern end of the boardwalk. I don’t think you can beat his family’s prices in Sabang — P400 for a very basic fan room, and P1,000 for a fun dive (I paid for six dives and got the seventh for free). Or beat the knowledgable and fun company of Oman, Jay, Sam and Darel at Tina’s Reef Divers. I spent five nights here and could easily stay longer.

Escaping pressure in the Philippines

A strong sea breeze greets me on a Puerto Galera-bound ferry as I watch Batangas Port fade away. The cool wind is calming and an escape from the Filipino heat. My mind needed an escape as well. Since I left new friends in Kunming two weeks ago, I’ve visited my new school in Shanghai, and bid farewell to Shenzhen, which I called home for the last two years. Bittersweet emotions have been straining me recently — internal forces battle to hold on to the past while embracing the future.


Yesterday, the sight of Taal Volcano — the world’s smallest active volcano — encapsulated my desire to escape. Sulfuric steam vents dot the edges of the water-filled crater, releasing intense pressure from deep within. Aside from being small, Taal Volcano is unique for being situated in the middle of Taal Lake, which was formed by a massive eruption long ago (the last eruption was in 1977).

To cross the lake, hire a banca (I shared the boat with two Swiss guys for 1,500 pesos, including the return trip), and then you can do the easy, 45-minute hike up to the inner lake after you pay the P100 entrance fee. It’s not recommended, but you can actually swim in the greenish water (avoid the 70-80°C hot spots, of course), although I couldn’t find a clear trail down. However, I did take a refreshing dip in Taal Lake to wash off the dust and sweat. For a magnificent view of the volcano and surrounding scenery, stay in Tagaytay, 60km south of Manila. I spent the night at Mountain Breeze Hostel (P450 dorm bed) after flying into Manila two nights before. For comprehensive directions, click here.


My two nights in Manila were split between Pasig City and Makati City. In Pasig after landing, I stayed at the upscale Privato Hotel (P3700 for a double room with a great view of Makati’s skyscrapers and colorful, corrugated-metal roof surroundings) and had a delicious dinner of Kare Kare (pork belly in a spicy sauce) with a Filipino, who took pity on me by personally exchanging money for me. The next day I took my first jeepney (think of an extended-cab, retro-cool jeep that can pack in 23 people for seven pesos) to Burgos Street in Makati to witness the nightlife and girlie bars. I stayed at the Lokal Hostel, which has a helpful, English-speaking staff and the cheapest rooms on Burgos (P500 dorm bed, P1,500 private with A/C). In general, most people in tourist areas can speak English. Also in general, San Miguel beer is cheap and the local food is terrific.


(SIDENOTE: be prepared for annoying tourist touts and horrendous traffic everywhere. Traffic is even worse at the moment as locals travel to their home provinces to vote in Monday’s elections. Manny Pacquiao, the world-renowned fighter, is running for the Senate.)

Coming full circle in Kunming

There’s nothing like a nature trail to put everything in perspective. I’m walking under serene pine trees on what I think is a Buddhist kora — a circuit around a sacred site — on a mountain by Caoxi Temple (草席), a short walk from my hotel. I indulged myself by staying at Jinfang Forest Spa Resort in Anning (安宁) — a short drive west of Kunming — to conclude my motorbike trip that started nearly three weeks ago in Kunming. In that span, I covered over 1,500km of good (and terrible) road, mingled with friendly foreigners and locals, ate and slept on the cheap, and experienced sensory overload. Thus I needed peace so I splurged on my last night at Jinfang (it’s the low season so I negotiated for a 650元 king-size mountain view room with private hot spring pool).


After the Water Splashing Festival, I rode G213, which is the old highway that runs parallel to the Kunming-Mohan Expressway, north out of Jinghong (景洪). Pu’er tea trees and banana plants dominate, and to a lesser extent, a patchwork of colorful orchards, blooming flowers, and other cash crops (watermelon, dragon fruit, sugarcane, maize, coffee, etc. ) appear. Be aware that G213 is currently under varying stages of improvements so dump trucks, potholes, and dust are the norm.  The nearly 100km-stretch from Ning’er to Mojiang almost drove me to madness, and makes it difficult to appreciate the views.


I decided to take a detour on S218. My sanity and bike thanked me. The section from Mojiang to where the two-lane sealed road meets S306 at the Lishe River was one of the best overall routes (great road condition, light traffic, and splendid scenry). S218 meanders up and down mountains, passing rice terraces before it drops into a river valley full of bananas. On a Tuesday afternoon, all I usually saw on the scenic byway were motorbikes, motor plows, farmers, cattle, water buffaloes, and chickens trying to get out of my way.


Of course, everything wasn’t dandy — vast tracts of mountainsides were striped of forest to make way for more crops. And I had to make haste to beat a coming thunderstorm. I was thinking,

“No, no, please wait, please wait!”

The rain didn’t wait, and I ended up getting doused, but not nearly as wet as I did at the festival. I sought shelter at a crossroads truck stop where S218 meets S306. The storm knocked out the electricity, so I had a not-so-romantic, candlelit dinner with five local men. It was comical as one man repeatedly tried to speak to me in his local language. Upon failing to communicate, he invariably resorted to “hello” when he wanted me to drink bijiu (白酒) or eat.

Dry and refreshed (albeit surprising so, considering the state of the bare-bones, 30元-room at the truck stop), I took S306 back to G213 and spent the next night at Eshan. To find the Chinese hotels I stayed at in Pu’er (普洱), Ning’er (宁洱), Mojiang (墨江), and Eshan (峨山), look for neon lights or ask bystanders to point the way to a hotel (jiu dian 酒店). The rooms averaged 100元, and twin bed rooms were cheaper for some reason. The four-laned S213 then quickly took me higher and higher until I was on the high plateau that Kunming and Anning rest on.


(SIDENOTE: Despite driving an unregistered bike with no Chinese license, I didn’t have any problems with the authorities. I passed through a few security checkpoints (and bypassed one), but I was only stopped once for passport verification. However, if you decide to ride a bike in Yunnan, drive safely with a good helmet, use common sense, smile, and enjoy the ride.)

Ringing in the New Year, Dai-style

Guns are loaded. Battle cries fill the air. Chaos ensues. This is not a war zone, but rather Poshuijie (泼水节) — the Dai people’s annual New Year’s celebration. Known as the Water Splashing Festival, locals and tourists alike flocked to the main square of Jinghong — the capital of Xishuangbana, Yunnan — on Friday the 15th to cap off the three-day festival with wild, wet revelry.


The Dai sprinkle water on people to bring the recipients good fortune. During the festival, the wetter you get, the more luck you get, and anyone and everyone is fair game. As a foreigner, be prepared to get an extra dousing. Just to get to the square, my group — armed with water guns, bags of water balloons, and plastic pots — had to pass through a gauntlet of water hurlers. Teams on each side of the street would challenge you to get through. Impossible. Water attacks also come from rear ambushes and above from balconies. I was drenched in no time, and I quickly learned the importance of a plastic pot — you use it to shield your face. High-pressure water guns (think Super Soaker 1000) hurt!

My sanctuary and base of operations was Caffy’s Guesthouse (Mengzhe Road No. 20), where I stayed for the three days of the festival. Normally 30元 for a dorm bed, prices were three-fold for the festival period. Caffy made it worthwhile as a most gracious hostess, making you feel at home, and making a terrific cup of Yunnan coffee. She threw a party the night before and lobbed the first water balloon at midnight. Her staff and guests (mostly Chinese, as was the festival in general) quickly joined in the fun or ran for cover.


Earlier in the day, I unsuccessfully searched for the festive parade of locals in colorful, traditional dresses so I relaxed at Manting Park before a sunset at Xishuangbana Bridge, which crosses the Lancang River (Mekong). For souvenirs, go to Ganlanba, the site of a giant golden tower and a huge night market.

The festival officially kicked off on the 13th with dragon boat races on the Lancang. The countdown to the new year occurred at 8pm on the banks of the river with Buddhist monks chanting scriptures, and people setting off river lanterns and paper lanterns that filled the sky. New year’s wishes are written on the lanterns before they float away. The sheer spectacle of light, fire, and chanting was mesmerizing.


For most of the activities, I was joined by a rotating cast of good-natured Chinese and foreign hostel mates. We ate Dai food together (you must try the sticky rice with powdered seaweed, and the pineapple rice), enjoyed Yunnan’s exotic fruits, and washed everything down with Beerlao. I didn’t do any of Caffy’s recommended day-trips out of Jinghong as the overpowering heat discouraged activity. Plus, I didn’t feel the need to as I passed through minority villages and gorgeous countryside on the drive from Yuanyang to Jinghong. Rice terraces gave way to landscapes dominated by banana, rubber tree, and Pu’er tea plantations. I camped for two nights (once overlooking terraced tea trees near Luchen and another in a mountainside rubber tree clearing by Xishuangbana Tropical Botanical Garden) sandwiched around a hotel stay in Jiangcheng. It proved to be a wonderful stay as my bike received a repair and I was treated to dinner by the boss and his family.


The road conditions often made for slow travel — S214 is a twisting, mountain-hugging affair with light motorbike traffic on the way to Luchen, and it becomes 20km of rocky, dirt road when it meets S218, north of Jiangcheng. Similarly, G213 — slicing through Xishuangbana National Nature Reserve on the way to Jinghong — is currently under construction so dump trucks, heavy machinery, and clouds of dust obstruct jungle scenery and stop traffic. Regardless, when you stop for a break, you get a glimpse of Yunnan daily life: farmers working their rice terraces, sugarcane being readied for market, roadside watermelon stands awaiting customers, dried tea leaves being sorted, a cobra snake being captured, local men lazily smoking cigarettes from a bong, female laborers lugging heavy, blue bags of bananas up mountains, fresh tea leaves being picked and put in woven baskets, and to cap it all — a wild water festival to wash away the old year.

From rice to riches: Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

Birds chirp. A woman in dark blue and black garb works her field. A farmer leads his water buffalo. Just after sunrise, I’m sitting by a bubbling drainage ditch that is giving and taking water from flooded terraces as it makes it’s way to a fog-filled valley.

The otherworldly place is the Duoyishu rice terraces — one of many in the UNESCO-listed Honghe Hani Rice Terraces — roughly 365km south of Kunming, not far from the Vietnam border.


It’s taken me five days to get here since I left Kunming by motorbike. It wasn’t easy to leave knowing full well what happened to my last bike (Click here). Once I got out of the city and on the open road though, thrill replaced paranoia. I used the side road (bikes aren’t allowed on toll roads) that cuts between Xishan Forest Park and Dianchi Lake. For outstanding panoramic views of Kunming, take a cable car (40元 one-way) across the lake to Xishan and hike past Buddhist and Taoist temples to Dragon’s Gate (Longmen admission 40元). If you’re interested in community living projects, drive 15km further south then turn right and follow big butterfly signposts to Spirit Tribe. I went there for their 3-day electronic music festival where I camped, met fun-loving people, and cavorted for the first two nights. The beautiful valley location, west of the city, is perfect for nature escapes.


The natural scenery only got better as I continued south. I took S215 to Yuxi, passing fields of you-name-it (onions, potatoes, cabbage, etc.). I stopped for the night in Tonghai, 30km east of Yuxi on S304. I caught the tail end of a sunset at a hilltop pagoda in Xiushan Mountain Park. A clean, comfortable hotel will cost you around 90元. The hotel guard might even escort you two blocks to the best Chinese BBQ joint, like was done for me.

S214 can take you the rest of the way to Yuanyang. I shared the road, which mostly runs parallel with the toll road to Jianhui, with buses and transport trucks loaded to the brim with crops or construction supplies. I had to dodge fallen cabbage and stones occasionally. Though it became more difficult to focus on the road as dramatic scenery unfolded.  What started as a high plateau in Kunming, followed by spacious valleys, became ravines. The scenic route hugs mountains and overlooks a patchwork of various crops.  As you approach sleepy towns, the air’s a bit thicker from burning trash. Roadside trash dumps are a common sight, but Yunnan’s one-of-a-kind scenery blots out the blemishes.


Jianshui, with restored classical architecture and famous roasted tofu, made for a relaxing break. I spent two nights at Typha Youth Hostel (60-80元 single room), very close to the oldest Confucius temple in southern China. It has a friendly staff, a rooftop patio with a great view, and comfortable rooms IF you use their mosquito coils. (I didn’t the first night and killed close to 20 blood-filled suckers!)

After a sunrise at Double Dragon Bridge, I slowly made my way on countless switchbacks. Factory towns gave way to villages that dotted the mountainsides. The last 30km before Yuanyang is a treacherous, yet stunning descent to the Red River (Honghe). Terraced rice fields come into view for the first time on the way down. Just pass through the nondescript town of Nansha (aka New Yuanyang) and go another 30km via the road to Xinjie (aka Old Yuanyang) where the spectacular terrace views begin.


I went an extra 30km to the Duoyishu terraces in order to stay at Timeless Hostel, highly rated by Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor. The host, Richard from Fujian, is extremely helpful and full of knowledge. (He called me “a crazy man” when I told him my mode of transport. I have to agree.) And the hostel is located in the middle of a Hani village called Puogaolaozhai, overlooking the terraced valley. The Hani minority people (and later the Yi minority) have been carving out a livelihood from the steep contours of the land for at least 1,300 years. Their hard labour supports rice, beans, and corn. Coincidently, the local people created a thing of beauty in the process.  Let’s just hope the government — which has invested in new villages, schools, and roads — doesn’t build an airport nearby to make the attraction more convenient for mass tourism.

Connections and spirits abound in Kunming

Flying into Kunming three days ago was a jarring experience. The Yunnan provincial capital, known as the “Spring” city due to it’s subtropical, highland location almost 2,000m high, didn’t offer me a warm welcome. I went from beach weather in Sanya to frigid cold. That aside, I have quickly found warmth in the people and easy-going, mixed culture. Kunming has soul.

An American expat, Kevin, I befriended in Shenzhen quickly plugged me in thanks to the time he spent living here. He put me in touch with an American friend, Charlie, who works at a brew pub called Humdinger. The city has a budding beer-making culture and more pubs are set to open in the near future. Dave and his Chinese wife, Yujia, opened Humdinger (try a pint and homemade pretzel for 25 yuan!) a year ago and also run an outstanding hostel called Lost Garden (60 yuan 3-bed dorm room, 240 yuan single), where I’m staying. The quiet, recently-renovated hostel is in an excellent, central location — off Huanggong Dong Street beside Green Lake Park — a short walk from Humdinger, off Renmin Zhong Road.

After taking the Airport Express No.1 line (25 yuan) to the West Hotel, followed by a short taxi ride, I checked into the Lost Garden and headed over to Humdinger. I braved the cold at Humdinger’s new, outdoor bar to chat with Charlie, and before I knew it, I was tapping into Kunming’s lively expat scene. Charlie took me to his music gig at a Chinese bar and I quickly learned that the foreigners I met came to Kunming on a whim and ended up staying. The city has a year-round mild climate (usually) and unique culture, home to the Yi people and other minorities, at the crossroads of SE Asia, not far from Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

Strolling through Green Lake Park on a Saturday afternoon, you will find large crowds dancing, some in colorful garb. When you get hungry, try Yunnan’s famous rice noodles or minority cuisine (I had a spicy sampler platter of pineapple rice, pork, cucumbers, eggs, and mushrooms, all served on banana leaves at a Dai restaurant). When you get tired, relax at one of the numerous cafés that line the park. Nearby is 1,200-year-old Yuantong Temple (6 yuan admission) and the Bird and Flower Market, where you can shop for souvenirs and walk the old streets (the little alleys off Nanping Street were my favorite).

The city serves as a gateway to the Stone Forest and Lijiang old town — both UNESCO World Heritage sites — for most tourists due to it’s bus/train links. However, I will be using a different mode of transportation when I leave Kunming. Kevin has graciously offered me his motorbike to tour the mountains and valleys of Yunnan!

Visiting Hainan’s fairies without breaking the bank

I had planned to hike one of Hainan’s inland mountains well before I arrived on the island. Initially, it was going to be the tallest provincial peak — Wuzhishan — but I was informed in Haikou that some unfortunate foreigners died there last year so the authorities have since forbid access to foreigners. So I chose Seven Fairy Mountain, which is known for it’s numerous hot springs and lush rainforest.

I decided to do it after five wonderful nights at Sea & Sky in Tianyazhen. It just so happened that a volunteer staff member was flying back home the next day so we agreed to share Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) the next morning. For the last evening, I shared a communal dinner with the friendly staff and then a generous gentleman from Henan treated me and the volunteer to drinks. While drinking Heineken  and smoking his 100 yuan pack of cigarettes, the volunteer — a university student from Sichuan — acted as a translator. The Henan man was a  jolly, 28-year-old with an adorable 4-year-old boy and a beautiful wife. After quite a few rounds, I somehow managed to wake up at 7:30am to catch the ride into the Sanya city center. I later caught a 2-hour bus (20 yuan) from the Sanya bus station (take Bus 10 or 12 to the Qichezongzhan stop) to Baoting, a Li-minority town that’s 8km from Seven Fairy Mountain.

At the Baoting bus station, I asked a taxi to take me to a reasonably-priced hotel, close to the mountain. The ride was 50 yuan. The hotel (188 yuan a night) is to the left of the main road leading to the mountain park, beside the access road to the 5-star Narada Spa & Resort. The 4km-walk to the park entrance is uphill and took 30 minutes. I decided to start the hike at 4pm, but the ticket office refused to sell me a 48 yuan pass because the park closes at 5. Well, I tried my luck and walked through the gate without being stopped. Score!

The hike to the 933m summit of one of the seven “fairies” — which are limestone pillars that look like stone swords — took me roughly one hour. On a non-holiday, Monday afternoon, I passed by a few couples and groups (the biggest group included a Californian and his Chinese wife’s friends), but since I was the last to enter the park, I was the last to come down. Thanks to the clouds, there was no stunning sunset to be had at the top (most of the hike consists of moderately-strenuous steps, but the last 50m is a near-vertical rock climb, assisted by chains). Regardless, the nearly 360-degree view was still impressive. Aside from Baoting in the distance, all you really see is unspoiled rainforest. The park advertises dozens of fauna types, but I only heard and saw birds. Descending the mountain was absolute bliss as I didn’t see a soul on the stone/wooden walkway just before dusk.

Worn out from the hike, I spent the next day at Narada’s hot spring, a 5-minute walk from my hotel. I wasn’t asked to pay (perhaps because the staff assumed I was a hotel guest), but when I ordered a coconut, I was asked to provide a room number. So I had to fork over 35 yuan. As the surrounding area was developed, and is currently developing, purely for tourism, be prepared to pay a steep premium for most things. A coconut at my comfortable hotel (though my room lacked mosquito netting, which was an annoying downside) was 10 yuan. Across the road at a corner store, I was quoted 10 yuan for a mango and a banana. Despite the ubiquitous high prices, you can find little shops a short walk up the Seven Fairy Mountain road that sell normally-priced necessities, like water and beer. There are also a few hotel/restaurants, on the left side, that are slightly cheaper than mine.

To get back to Sanya for my flight to Kunming, I used a Narada hotel shuttle. The van whisked me off for the 2-hour trip — for free. Once again, the hotel staff assumed I was a hotel guest. Of course, I gave the driver a generous tip.